Driving a Fuel Cell car and a Smart car

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I recently had an opportunity to drive a hydrogen fuel cell car and a Smart car while visiting Mercedes-Benz’ tech center in Palo Alto. They had on hand an “F-Cell”, an A-series car fitted with a hydrogen fuel call drivetrain, and the Smart was one of the models that have been available in Europe for years but just came for sale in the US recently.

The fuel cell model inherited the attributes of the regular A series: small on the outside, big on the inside (it’s a 4 seater and room in the back was impressive), and more premium level materials and design than Americans expect in their small cars (though the A is not a budget car). The fuel cell drivetrain moved the car along at a pace fine for getting around town (we didn’t take them on the freeway). A “turbo” mode could be engaged to provide more pep, at the expense of economy.

The drivetrain had a fair bit of whine coming from the electric motors, I’m guessing this was because the prototype wasn’t fitted with much sound dampening. Otherwise it felt very normal to drive and handled just fine.

Mercedes is not making any promises on availability, these are strictly test beds. About half the hundred-plus  F-Cells are in California, I think helping Mercedes meet Californias air regulations.

It would be great to see the A-series here in the US, given how gas prices are going and congestion on the roads is just getting worse every year. As clean diesel is now more widely available, the turbo diesels would especially be great.

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The Smart car was an interesting experience. I really like the exterior styling, and the interior is better than the original, more toned down and mature (think half way between a Mini and a Civic). It’s only a 2-seater, and it was snug.

Speed was ok, nothing great; it only weighs 1800 lbs, but the engine is just 71hp, and 0-60 is 14.1 seconds. The biggest problem was the gear change. The automatic box took ages to make the shift (a couple of seconds or more) during which time no power was going to the wheels it seemed, and the car coasted. This made shifting while accelerating a frustrating experience.

“You’ll get used to it,” said my chaparone. And I did…by not accelerating very hard and minimizing the obviousness of the lag. But not a great solution. And it doesn’t give a warm fuzzy that the car has the speed when you need it to get out of a jam. (I don’t think anyone buys a Smart with sporting pretensions and I certainly wasn’t judging it against hot hatches).

The weird thing is that the Smart doesn’t get that great gas mileage — 33mpg in town and 41mpg on the highway. There are other bigger and only slightly more expensive cars (the Smart starts at $11,500) that get similar or better mileage and which don’t require premium fuel like the Smart does. If Mercedes had introduced it years ago before the Mini took hold, before Scion was widespread, and before innovators like the Prius, Yaris or  Fit appeared, then it would have been more distinctive. Unless you place a premium on fitting into tiny parking spaces (the Smart is over 3ft shorter than a Mini!) or being the unique kid on your block, the case for the Smart today  doesn’t seem that compelling.